The whole sequence of events is so strange that it feels symbolic. Hands don't normally come out first in childbirth, and then pulling it back in is curious. Why would a midwife be so anxious to label the first twin as to tie a thread around a child's hand even before it's fully delivered? Seeing anything other than a head should be cause for alarm.

The scarlet color is also viewed by some as significant (often denoting royalty). Also, chapter 38 is a detour from the Genesis story line (now mainly about Joseph). The birth of the twins seems to be the climax and the purpose of that detour. Something's up here.

I suspect all these dots connect, but I don't see how.

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One thing we can conclude is that the midwife must have seen this firstborn as the household heir (i.e. Er's firstborn). If merely a child of Judah, it would be "behind" Shelah, and 1 Chronicles 4:21 notes many descendants of Shelah. If illegitimate, it wouldn't be anything. This genealogy matters later.

This means Judah confessed his sin fully to his household and also concluded that the firstborn counts as Er's as per Deuteronomy 25:5-6. Also, the midwife's curiously excessive attention to who is born first hints that she was under orders to track it.

  • Good question. This is not opinion based. There are clues in scripture - the scarlet thread in the priest's garments, the scarlet thread which Rahab attached to signal her presence. +1.
    – Nigel J
    May 13, 2019 at 12:13
  • To make it even more confusing (or interesting), read the "Biblical" section at the end of The Red Hand of Ulster May 13, 2019 at 15:44

3 Answers 3


Identifying the first-born son has always been a hugely important part of the biblical account, not just for inheritance rights, but because of being set apart (dedicated) to the Lord God. This is where understanding the litany of familial disasters that befell Judah must be noted.

Judah had three sons by his wife, Shuah: Er was the first-born son. Then Shuah give him two more sons, Onan and Shelah. Er married Tamar but he was wicked and the Lord slew him (before he had any children to Tamar). According to Leverite marriage laws, Er's brother Shuah ought to have married the widow and raised up children by her, to keep his brother's name going, but then he would forfeit his rights to any such offspring. For that reason, he thought to indulge in the pleasures of sex with her but to deny her any chance of becoming pregnant. The Lord slew him for that. Judah had to then promise his daughter-in-law to his third son, but made the excuse of him being too young and sent Tamar to live with her father till he deemed Shelah to be old enough. The account tells us that Judah had no intention of giving Shelah to her in marriage in case he was stricken dead as well. Shelah was now his only heir. While Tamar was away, Judah's wife, Shuah, died.

Then comes the account of Tamar, desperate to have children, resorting to subterfuge to get them by her father-in-law, for she rightly perceived that Judah was not going to let Shelah marry her. (If he had, any children by his union with Tamar would have inherited the rights of the first-born as they would continue the line of Judah's first-born, Er.) Tamar's plot succeeded and she became pregnant by Judah. It probably wasn't till well on in her pregnancy that it was clear she was carrying twins.

Now comes the matter of a scarlet cord being tied around the extended hand of the first baby which appeared to be coming out. The haste with which the midwife did this might have been due to the very real risk that Tamar would die in labour (no caesarian operations on the go at that time). If she died before even one twin was fully born, the cord would still enable a first-born to be claimed. Ah, but that baby's hand was withdrawn and (perhaps after a protracted labour), the baby who was truly first-born was delivered - minus any scarlet cord. Then came his brother, with the scarlet cord still attached. But there was no denying that the first-born son had a two-fold birth-right and would inherit Judah's line, superseding his third son, Shelah.

The first-born was named Pharez and his twin brother was named Zarah. It was through those two that families of considerable note in the most illustrious tribe of Judah arose. And from the line of Pharez descended king David and then Jesus Christ. Both these sons are mentioned in the genealogy of Christ in Matthew 1:3. Shelah is not mentioned in that line, despite him fathering his own line.

It is noted by Matthew Henry in his 'Commentary' (page 62, 3rd column):

"that the four eldest sons of Jacob fell under very foul guilt. Reuben and Judah under the guilt of incest, Simeon and Levi under that of murder, yet they were patriarchs, and from Levi descended the priests, from Judah the kings and Messiah. Thus they became examples of repentance, and monuments of pardoning mercy."

I would suggest that the important points in this account are to do with the line of the Messiah. And, yes, the colour of the cord used to identify that first-born baby appropriately signified royalty. There is also the scarlet cord the prostitute Rahab used to save the spies and her own family, and the scarlet thread in the garments of priests. But this is not a detour in the main story, for the main theme of scripture is (starting from Genesis 3:15) to trace the spiritual matters pertaining to the promised "seed of the woman". Judah and Tamar were unwitting 'players' in that line of the Messiah, and it was God who determined who their first-born son would be, just as he did in determining the birth-right of twins Esau and Jacob, reversing the natural order.

  • 1
    + 1 I am glad to see Tamar (one of the heroines of the OT IMO) begin to receive the credit due her. I'd say she was not completely unwitting either... she risked her life to preserve the chosen lineage. I think she was at least partly aware of her providential role. Like Mary in a later drama she was incorrectly thought to have committed adultery by the central male figure in the story. I like to think that God guided her. Jan 12 at 3:32

All the proper names of the Bible play a very important role in conveying God's message. Genesis 38 is a chapter where this general fact becomes specially true.

To understand the meaning of the scarlet hread on Zerach's hand I think it would be good to refer to all the names contained in the chapter.

The strange story of Yehudah's marriage and his first generations in Genesis 38 contains in fact many significant and interesting proper names that are also closely related to each other.

The very name of the father himself - Yehudah יְהוּדָה - to start with, which means "praised" or "thanked". The implied object of that praise is in fact the LORD (as clearly stated in Ge 29:35). The LORD is the One we thank as the source of every good gift we receive, and most importantly of our salvation.

The story begins when Yehudah, far from his brothers, through a friend from Adullam (the place's name probably meaning "justice of the people") whose name was Chirah ("whiteness, splendour"), meets a girl, whose name has remained untold. However, strangely enough, we know her father's name, instead, together with the origins of his family: he was a man from Canaan and his name was Shua' שׁוֹעַ. This name in Hebrew means "salvation", but it is not a name we find in Israel (elsewhere, it appears only as a Chaldean or Assyrian name, Ezek 23:23).

But the LORD didn't want Yehudah to have any offspring from a man with such a name: salvation's source must not remain anonimous and even the less it can't be identified with a sinful creature. In fact, the name Shua', not referring to the only true source of salvation, that is HaShem (לַיהוָה הַיְשׁוּעָה Ps 3:8), automatically becomes a lie, because it refers to somebody as something he can not possibly be.

Anyway, from the anonimous daughter of the carrier of that misleading name, we read that Yehudah got three sons. All of them with a significant name. The first one he named 'Er עֵר. The two consonants of this name mean "awake", but this name turned out to signify the same as its anagram, i.e. the word that means "evil", ra' רַע. In fact Er was such a person in the eyes of the LORD (Ge 38:7). On this account, God put him to death.

Before that, anyway, Yehudah gave him a wife. It's quite interesting that her name (whose first meaning is "palm tree") refers, as a root, to the action of rising to the heights of the sky, like the palm trees do, and the pillars of smoke as well (Song of songs 3:6 כְּתִֽימֲרֹות עָשָׁן). Additionally the dates' palm trees refer to the sweetness of life and to the springs of living waters (cfr Exodus 15:27). Which corresponds very well to the role that Tamar is going to play in our story.

The following two names, of the second and third child, were given by the unnamed wife of Yehudah.

The second child, 'Onan אוֹנָן, means "vigorous", but that man didn't use his vigour to obey God's commandment and raise an offspring to his dead brother. Therefore the LORD put him to death too.

The name of the third one - Shelah שֵׁלָה , meaning "petition, request"- was also kind of prophetic, because he would be requested by his sister in law.

The birth of the two twins Yehudah got from Tamar, which repeats the story of Yitzchaq's and Yoseph's sons, brings up another pair of meaningful names after all the other names of the chgapter.

Again the one who looked like to be the firstborn became the second one, whereas the one to looked like to be the second one found his way out and became the firsborn. As for the first one, this action of breaking forth remains recorded in his name Peretz פֶּרֶץ. But the name of the second, Zerach ("shining") refers to the scarlet thread that was put on his wrist as a sign that he would be first.

Actually, that scarlet thread, shaniy שָׁנִי, is referred to by a word that has the very same consonants as the Hebrew word for "second" sheniy שֵּׁנִי.

In conclusion one of the main teaching we can draw from all these stories is that we must not rely on what we have and what we can see.

The root of the name Zerach (zayn + resh + chet) cconveys the meaning of "irradiate, come out, appear" and also echoes the meaning of the close root of zara' (zayn + resh + ayn) which means to sow. But he was not the seed, he only appeared so.

What happened to Zerach shows that situations can easily and quickly change (Proverbs 23:5). Those who were first can easily become the last ones if they take for granted what they have received and not make any effort to get it. The fact that salvation comes only from Ha-Shem, whom we cannot see, gives us the responsibility to keep searching for Him, together with the blessed hope that one day we will eventually encounter our King, whom we can't see now because everything we can see now is only for some time, whereas His kingdom will be for ever.

As always in the living Word of God, this general message can be found also in the details, like that one of the Hebrew word for the scarlet thread on Zerach's hand, that was meant to signify that he was the first but that also contained the meaning of being second.


I agree with @Anne that the scarlet thread represents the messianic lineage. The reason this remarkable story is commemorated in this way is that a truly amazing miracle occurred: the restoration of the blessing of the firstborn within a mother's womb.

Prior to this, firstborn sons were rejected by God.

  • The offering of the firstborn son Cain was rejected, while that of Abel was accepted.
  • God rejected the firstborn Ishmael but accepted Isaac.
  • God hated Esau and loved Jacob (Romans 9:13) and saw to it that Jacob received Esau's first-born blessing.

In each of these cases God blessed the younger son. However an important shift occurred when Jacob succeeded in taking the blessing of his elder brother Esau, fled into a long exile, and later returned home to be welcomed by him. On that foundation Zerah and Perez miraculously reversed the position of elder and younger in Tamar's womb. That reversal paved the way for the ascendance of the Tribe of Judah and the coming of King David - and (for Christians) the birth of Jesus.

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